Christianity, Reality, and What it Means to (Really) Be “Open to Evidence”

Christianity, Reality, and What it Means to (Really) Be “Open to Evidence” September 1, 2015
diogenes and alexander
Alexander the Great and Diogenes, in an early 19th century engraving (public domain, from Wikipedia Commons). Dio Chrysostom takes this episode, involving Diogenes’ bold reply to Alexander, as an illustration/test of the difference between genuine and false sincerity.

 

For most people, being closed off to the sort of evidence that might lead someone to change his or her mind about any particular opinion or belief is not a virtue. At the very least, it’s not something that’s candidly admitted (or perhaps even consciously realized).

We saw a dramatic—and widely publicized—exception to this in a 2014 debate between science popularizer Bill Nye and creationist Ken Ham, when each was asked what might possibly change their mind about their positions on biological evolution. To this, the former responded, in short, evidence. By contrast, Ham suggested that, by virtue of his belief that evolution and Biblical truth are incompatible, his unfailing conviction in the truth of the Bible necessarily precluded any evidence for evolution from ever being persuasive to him: “No one is ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true.”

This sort of frank stubbornness was ridiculed by virtually everyone except for Ham sympathizers—at least insofar as this doesn’t even appear to leave room for the possibility of reconciliation between the facts of evolution and belief in the truth of the Bible. Yet there’s another sense in which things aren’t quite so Manichean. Ham repeatedly prefaced his defense of creationist beliefs with the phrase “there is a book…” (referring to the Bible and its purportedly self-justifying claims); but, of course, the question is not just the interpretation of one book, but rather two. In the language of Galileo Galilei, every theist must simultaneously contend with the book of scripture and the book of nature.


Among other things, Galileo had gotten himself into trouble over (what was perceived as) his having usurped the Church’s authority to delineate how the book of nature is to be understood in light of the book of scripture; or, rather, how the book of scripture should be understood in light of the book of nature. To oversimplify, Galileo ended up on the wrong side of an exegetical debate—one that had been broached at least since the time of Saint Augustine—on how much ground received theological truths should yield when challenged by the discoveries of natural science.

Ken Ham’s interpretation of the book of nature is guided entirely by the book of scripture—which, for him, is first and foremost navigated through his utter conviction as to its truth, but also through a naive literal interpretation. Here Ham finds himself right of the right-of-center position of someone like Augustine, whose theological authority Galileo would call upon as a main witness in his defense, but whose stubborn insistence on the infallibility of the Biblical witness could occasionally leave one in a precarious position.

Although Augustine is well-known for conceding that literal interpretations of scripture must yield to the conclusions of the natural sciences when the latter had been conclusively demonstrated to be true, he still maintained on certain non-negotiables. For example, in addressing the conundrum of the existence of the mysterious waters “above the firmament” of Genesis 1:7, Augustine insisted that “Whatever the nature of that water and whatever the manner of its being there, we must not doubt that it does exist in that place,” if only because “the authority of Scripture in this matter is greater than all human ingenuity.”¹ (Thomas Aquinas was even more explicit about this, suggesting—in response to a very similar issue to the one Augustine faced—that “the spirit of prophecy inspires the prophets even about conclusions of the sciences.”²)

It’s clear that there are many places where Ham diverges from Augustinian principles, refusing any middle ground of non-literal interpretation. (And certainly Ham is a prime candidate for the type of Christian that Augustine condemns one point: those who speak “nonsense” about the natural world based on their interpretation of scripture.)

On the other hand, it may be an uncomfortable truth to realize that there are other places in which Augustine appears more Ken Ham-esque than we may have supposed, and Ken Ham more Augustinian. At the end of my previous post, I had quoted theologian and Biblical scholar James Barr, who isolated a main principle of “fundamentalist” Biblical interpretation in that “shifts back and forward between literal and non-literal interpretations” to protect the Bible from error—something Augustine was explicit about. And indeed we see places where Ken Ham & co. forego the sort of naïve literalism that they demonstrates elsewhere: for example, in response to Biblical suggestions of an immobile earth supported by “pillars,” an article on the Answers in Genesis site explains that the “supposed contradiction quickly disappears when we examine the context of each passage and recognize it as figurative language.”


To be sure, although we don’t know how Augustine would opine on these matters, were he brought back to life (and brought up to speed on the modern debates), surely he would still be preferable to Ken Ham any day of the week. But what I’m really interested in here is how Ken Ham’s commitment to Biblical truth allows him to manipulate his understanding of the natural world, and how this may have some uncomfortable resonances with more common theological perspectives.

Far from a prima facie rejection of the natural sciences, a look at the numerous articles and other publications of Answers in Genesis and similar creationist organizations suggests that some of these have attempted to engage the sciences, in many different aspects. Of course, we might rightly question how truly substantive, or perhaps even sincere, this “engagement” is; but in fact this isn’t the most incisive avenue of criticism. The broader principle that some of these creationists depend on is not an immediate and blanket rejection of the conclusions of science, but rather the ability to reframe basic facts of geology, biochemistry, etc., so that they can be fit into their preferred theistic framework.

To take an example, some of these organizations don’t even reject certain major aspects of zoological speciation or (certain) evidence of transitional phenotypes in the fossil record, but instead take this evidence and somehow condense the chronological framework here or otherwise reinterpret it in line with creationism.

But, again, rather than focus on this in and of itself, I’m also interested in using this as a springboard to question just how sincerely seriously others have dealt with criticism of religion.

If Ham and other creationists’ apparent engagement with the facts of natural science always ends in their (ultimate) rejection, or rather their reinterpretation of these, to conform to their preconceived framework—which in retrospect makes it seem like this was all just some sort of red herring to begin with—then how seriously should we take other claims of “my mind is open to changing, if presented with convincing evidence against the position I hold,” if the person saying this will always be on the look-out for some loophole so that “convincing evidence against the position I hold” can somehow be twisted into “not-ultimately-convincing evidence”?

That is to say: to be sure, there is such thing as a reactionary rejection of all evidence, before the case is even made; but there’s also a sort of semi-critical (or fully critical!) evaluation of evidence that nonetheless always ultimately ends in rejection, too. But, really, what’s the practical difference?

One of the most unfortunate effects of the latter is that it negates the value of what is more or less “unimpeachable” evidence by somehow reclassifying it into a sort of evidence that—even though it might even still be considered compelling—somehow doesn’t affect their overarching preconceived worldview.

This is the sort of evidence that can open the gateway for a true dissonance. But for those who aren’t quite willing to take this (perhaps preliminary) step, I often find myself posing questions like the following:

For young earth creationists: “Assuming, for the sake of argument, a hypothetical situation in which the earth really is billions of years old, what kind of evidence for this would we expect to see?” And in answer to this: if the sort of evidence we might reasonably expect is similar or identical to the evidence that we do see, then there’s no convincing argument against evolution; there’s only the theoretical possibility that God tricked humans by creating a world in which every piece of evidence points toward a certain conclusion and yet for some reason he still doesn’t want us to accept that conclusion.

There are an endless number of similar questions we could ask. A bit closer to Christian orthodoxy, we could ask “Assuming, for the sake of argument, a hypothetical situation in which we were to find statements of Jesus recorded the Bible wherein he promised that the Second Coming would take place within the lifetime of his first followers (in the first century), what sort of statements to this effect might we find?” (Again, if we can imagine statements that are more or less similar to those that we do find in the Bible—statements for which we can reasonably say that he predicted his return within a specific time-frame—there’s much less warrant to think that Jesus wasn’t ultimately a failed apocalyptic prophet.)

Similarly, for those who hold to orthodox Trinitarianism (the fundamental framework explaining the relationship of Christ and God, practically universally held by major Christian denominations): “Assuming a hypothetical situation in which the New Testament really did want to convey that Christ was essentially/ontologically subordinate to God in some way, how might this have been said?”³

In a follow-up comment to one I received after my last post, I acknowledged that a similar line of thought to this might be construed as an accusation that all theologically orthodox have closed their minds. And, of course, there could also be the charge of begging the question, re: my own interpretations here (about New Testament eschatology, subordinationism, and so on) being correct. But isn’t it precisely the nature of the (presumably apologetic) responses to these things that can help us make this determination?

That is, if—in defending against the charge that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet or that Christ was not really “fully God,” etc.—these responses do seem to continually strain credulity, and reveal a mindset in which the objector appears genuinely unable to seriously entertain warranted conclusions to the contrary, would we really be unjustified in thinking that that there’s perhaps a more pervasive and restricting cognitive phenomenon that’s governing both internal and external dialectic on these issues?

(And if one insisted that Christianity can actually still remain “true” even after the deconstruction of many of its fundamental doctrinal foundations, wouldn’t this itself be indicative of a similar sort of cognitive attachment—one that seems to express itself in a constant and egregious type of special pleading?)


Are atheists guilty of empty or disingenuous claims of open-mindedness to (potential) “evidence,” too? I’d find it hard to say no, considering the small number of atheists I know who—to take one example of a popular theistic issue/claim, miracles—have ever engaged the works of Jacalyn Duffin, or Craig Keener’s Miracles. (And I’m guilty of this, too.)

I realize that, here, I’m putting myself at risk of appearing to defend the scenario outlined (and ridiculed) in Myers’ “Courtier’s Reply,” wherein the proclamation of the emperor’s nakedness is castigated by someone who accuses the offender of having failed to thoroughly examine the evidence for imaginary fabrics. But if I haven’t already burned all my potential ecumenical bridges, that’s a risk that I’m willing to take.

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